New York's New Gay Synagogue Originally Designed by an Anti-Semite

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A great work of architecture survives the deplorable attitude of its creatorAP-gay synag-body.jpg

Tina Fineberg/AP

The New York Times City Room blog notes the planned conversion of a 1929 Assyrian-themed structure by the architect Cass Gilbert (best known for the Woolworth and Supreme Court buildings) by a gay Jewish congregation. The

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Front door of the proposed synagogue (Wikimedia Commons)

reason for Gilbert's Assyrian motif was once 'lost to history,' as the blog puts it, but actually may have been discovered by the architectural historian Margaret Heilbrun in her excellent study of Gilbert, Inventing the Skyline. She quotes a reply from Gilbert to a New York Post columnist, in which the architect compares the emerging setback skyscrapers of the city to the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia and reflects that they may be appropriate to a city called "the modern Babylon." (Actually the purpose of the 1916 zoning law mandating them was assuring light and air while permitting height, avoiding the dense canyons that were darkening downtown.) As for conversion to a synagogue, Gilbert actually saw Assyrians and Hebrews as Semitic cousins, and New York as "a city where so many of our peoples are descended from the races that once inhabited the Assyrian plains." [xix]

Lest the new congregants imagine Gilbert a latter-day prophet of multiculturalism, it's well to remember that at the time the structure was built he was writing to his son about staffing his firm: "I want to get gentlemen in the organization, not 'kikes,' floaters, and German Jews" [quoted in Sharon Irish, Cass Gilbert: Architect, 97]. Ironically, one of his key early clients in Montana had been a wealthy banker from a German-Jewish dynasty. What Cass Gilbert would have thought of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jewish congregation can only be imagined.

The bright side of unintended consequences is that the greatness of the work survives the often deplorable attitudes of the original creators and is ready for repurposing.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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